Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

Corporate Maternalism

The workplace arms-race to supply all of our psychological and spiritual needs.

Andrew Lynn

THR Illustration [Shutterstock photos].

Critics of industrial capitalism have often depicted it as an economic system that destroys the fabric of society. Mills and factories extracted workers from farm, neighborhood, parish, and guild and made them subject to the so-called tyranny of the machine. Friedrich Engels observed in the rise of large-scale industry a “veritable despotism independent of all social organization,” with workers as its beleaguered subjects. Engels’s friend Karl Marx indicted capitalism for having “pitilessly torn asunder” social ties and leaving workers exposed to an impersonal cash-nexus relationship with their employer.

But what some critics did not recognize was that industrialism also created new social bonds—especially in the workplace. Many influential planners of the nineteenth century wanted to counter Marx’s account: Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon took pride in how their confident theories of social engineering integrated family-like and morally laden social ties into work settings. Owen, a Welsh mill owner, was actually able to put his ideas into effect. Historian Philip Scranton described the early-nineteenth-century textile mills of the New England towns of Waltham and Lowell as “facilitating a cultural transition” that transferred the patrimonial relations of authority and familiarity to the boss or overseer. Mill owners saw it as their duty to adopt an in loco parentis role by means of reading groups, Bible classes, health care, and, for the mostly young women who lived and worked in the mills, round-the-clock supervision. Many industrialists translated their philanthropic efforts into similar worker-oriented programs, with Jane Addams’s Chicago settlement house being only one of the most prominent examples.

By the end of the nineteenth century, such practices had developed into more sophisticated forms of “corporate paternalism” such as the “company town.” Its most famous example was established around an Illinois sleeper-car factory named after its founder, George Pullman, and provided living quarters for more than 12,000 workers. Overseers closely monitored workers’ moral behavior and hygiene: Tobacco and alcohol consumption were prohibited and a curfew was enforced. A factory in Dayton, Ohio, introduced twice-daily calisthenics, lessons on hygiene, and, for female employees, supplementary cooking classes intended to improve dietary habits. According to an 1896 article in the American Journal of Sociology, department heads had discovered by the 1890s that providing workers a daily hot meal yielded “less delay from sickness, fewer absences, and an ability to work harder and more enthusiastically than when they ate cold food.” Employers counted not only on the appeal of moralistic paternalism but on the mutual benefit to employee and employer alike: Workers’ lives improved, and so did the bottom line. Twentieth-century industrial leaders such as Henry Ford appealed to the same logic in monitoring the home lives of his mostly immigrant workforce, often enforcing the social mores and hygienic practices of the white middle class.

It might not seem that such invasive paternalism would have a place in today’s professional and creative-class workplaces. After all, the foremen and bosses of yesteryear have been supplanted by what are euphemistically called team leaders. Instead of company towns, we have employee development programs. And while worker surveillance may still be common in the service industries, self-managed work appears to be the norm in white-collar settings, with the recent expansion of remote work only increasing employee autonomy. But the story is far more complicated, argues sociologist Carolyn Chen in her new book, Work Pray Code. Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with Silicon Valley workers and managers, Chen finds a variant of corporate paternalism on the rise, and, like its antecedents at Waltham and Lowell, it treats workers as underdeveloped adults requiring tutelage and guidance.

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